'Achingly' beautiful: Lucerne's must-do trip

An old friend, from Lancashire but living in London, once said that he never drove over Tower Bridge without thinking, "wow, how cool is this". He never, the way natives tend to, became blase about the place. This comes to mind as the Good Schiff Schiller pulls away from the dockside in Lucerne, paddle wheels churning, and eases gracefully into the Vierwaldstattersee (Lake of the Four Forested Settlements, aka Lake Lucerne) in central Switzerland. 

I want to turn to the nearest local and ask "Wird man das jemals satt?" but I can't speak German.

"Does this ever get old?" The correct answer, of course, would be "nein" because this is an exquisite accumulation of lake, snowy mountains, paddle steamer, fairytale architecture and bony men and stout women with sturdy shoes and hiking poles.

On the previous day we had toured Lucerne with a guide called, I kid you not, Heidi (though as if to make up for that frighteningly stereotypical first name, her surname is Muffler). During the tour she revealed that the waters of Lake Lucerne had been discovered to be "too clean" for fish. Something to do with a lack of phosphorus but, given that as she said it a nearby swan defecated into the same waters, I was sceptical (later research proved this to be true).

Among the other pearls of wisdom that Mrs Muffler dropped before us journalistic swine was the fact that her father could, in his day, name individual boats merely from the fart of their horn. 

One of the first boats to ply these waters was the PS Wilhelm Tell, which operated here from 1908 until 1970. Named after the famous apple-shooting, crossbow-wielding folk hero of Swiss myth, the ship is today permanently moored on the opposite bank to the boat station. Fully restored, it does business as a "Schiff-Restaurant". Its logo, amusingly, is a chef's toque with an arrow through it.

We chug away with the Wilhelm Tell on the left and the train and boat stations to our right. A few of the white swans that cluster here wave their wings and honk irritably and I wonder what Mrs Muffler's father would have made of it. "Ah, yes, the 2.35pm Wilhelm Tell to Vitznau, if I'm not mistaken."

Our boat is the PS Schiller, one of five paddle steamers still operated today by the Lake Lucerne Boat Company or, if you like gargling the alphabet, the Schifffahrtsgesellschaft des Vierwaldstattersees. 

For those who like such things, it's 63 metres long, has compound diagonal engines (750/1120 x 1300 mm, 864 HP) and was launched on February 15, 1906. It has been overhauled several times since – the latest when it was totally rebuilt and then relaunched on February 14, 2000.


For those of a less technical bent, it's sleek and white with a big old funnel in the middle and large red piston things downstairs which pump noisily up and down to power the paddle wheels. I, and several others, spend far too much time down there trying to take photographs of them in action. If you like "artistic" blurs, give me a shout.

Inside it's all beautiful wood panelling, there's an upholstered salon, a cafe and a kiosk selling Vierwaldstattersee souvenirs. And, yes, there is a Victorinox Swiss Army knife available ("Qualitat fur die Hosentasche") for a cheeky 15.60 Swiss francs. To get the full name on it it's a metre long and plays havoc with your Hosentasche. Ha. Just kidding.

But as nice as the interior is, it's what's outside that makes this a must-do trip if you're in the region.

We're headed for the little town of Fluelen on the far south-eastern corner of the lake where we're due to pick up the new Gotthard Tunnel train to Lugano. But first the PS Schiller has to bounce around for three hours or so picking up and disgorging passengers – tourists, hikers and locals alike – at the sort of flower-bedecked villages you find on jigsaw puzzle boxes.

The silvery, misty sheen of early morning has burned away and what looked like faded grey paper backdrops in an Indonesian shadow play have now solidified into three-dimensional mountains under a blue sky studded with cotton-wool clouds.

We pass by villages clinging to hillside forests and stop at small towns such as Vitznau, Gotthard, Weggis, Beckenried and Gersau. They all look aggressively clean, full of romantische onion-domed clock towers, slender church spires and imbricated roof tiles like dragon scales. Even the captain, when he appears, sports one of those bushy, tricked-up moustaches that probably needs to be brushed down every night, like a horse.

It is all so wonderfully, achingly beautiful that when we reach Fluelen, after a lunch in the boat's linen table-clothed restaurant, I feel like a child on his first rollercoaster. "Can we do it again? Can we do it again? Puhlease?"









Swiss International Airlines fly to Switzerland from the main Australian cities. See swiss.com for details of flight times and prices.


The Swiss Travel Pass (see myswitzerland.com/rail) covers unlimited travel on public buses, boats and trains around the country, gives holders up to 50 per cent discount on mountain railways and cableways and free entry to more than 490 museums. Children under 16 travel free with a guardian using the pass.

Keith Austin travelled as a guest of Switzerland Tourism.